MONICA MANOLACHI Reviews
Arctic Poems by Vicente Huidobro, translated by Nathan Hoks
(Toad Press, Claremont, CA, 2010)
In October 2015, Chilean poet Andrés Morales visited Bucharest to launch his Poemas escogidos, a bilingual collection published by Contemporary Literary Horizon, a Bucharest based multilingual litmag. He mentioned, during a two-hour conversation in the Victoria Club at the Grand Continental Hotel, the personality and work of Vicente Huidobro, very little known to Romanian readers. His introduction made me curious and soon after I found out that Brumar and Diacritic, two publishing houses from Timișoara, Romania, had published a first version in Romanian, made by Hispanist Ilinca Ilian and Romanian poet Adrian Bodnaru. Some months later, I received a parcel from poet Eileen R. Tabios, with a number of books to be reviewed, which are now on my bookshelf: one of them is by Huidobro.
In 1918, Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) published a collection entitled Arctic Poems (Poemas Árcticos), which illustrates his creationist theory of poetry: one should write “a poem the way nature makes a tree.” At that time, the archipelagic pieces included in the volume, with productively disruptive lines and imagery, represented a new perspective on poetic form, in line with the budding French avant-garde. In 2011, American poet Nathan Hoks translated a part of them into English for Toad Press. Through his enthusiasm for French poetry, he had come to be interested in Huidobro as a poet and as a translator, given that the Chilean author’s work blossomed precisely when he moved to Paris and began self-translating into French.
The poems selected for the chapbook speak about the journeys of a wandering spirit – through big cities in Europe, to America as a destination for emigrants, but also through space understood in more general terms as in the representation of a path, a star, the horizon or the universe. For example, the poem Night portrays a man roaming on a shore and building an unusual relationship not only with the surrounding visible natural environment, but also with a less visible reality:
Night is heard sliding over the snow
The song fell from the trees
And shouts ring out from behind the fog
With a glance my cigarette is lit
Each time I open my lips
I flood the void with clouds
In the harbour
The masts are full of nests
And the wind
groans between the wings of birds
THE WAVES ROCK THE DEAD SHIP
On the whistling shore
I see a star smoking between my fingers.
When examining the versions in English and Spanish, the reader notices a number of “differences” that eventually produce new meanings. Turning “De una mirada encendí mi cigarro” into “With a glance my cigarette is lit” reduces the number of verbs in the first person singular from four to three and thus adds a veil on the speaking subject, of whom we can see only his cigarette. Simultaneously, the passive present simple “is lit” instead of the past “encendí” creates a temporal breach, an opening towards interpretation. The translator suggests that the one who glances at the cigarette and that who holds it may be the same person or not.
In an online essay published in Pusteblume on the translation process of these very poems, Nathan Hoks starts from Huidobro’s view on what is lost in translation and concludes that his self-translations are not mimetic and that the purpose of the poetic language is to represent the inexpressible, by adding further significance to the everyday meaning of words, and mystery to the relationship between words that do not have an obvious connection. “I have tried to approach my English translations as though they were textual products somehow wedged between Huidobro’s French and Spanish versions,” explains Nathan Hoks. For example, in the first poem, “Hours,” “el campanario florecido” appears as “the split bell tower,” in which “florecido” and “split” not only occupy different positions in relation to the noun due to distinct grammars, but they convey overlapping meanings, which speaks about overlapping cultural contexts.
Opening up such disjunctions as Huidobro did between French and Spanish eventually creates new relationships between words and voices. Bearing this in mind, avant-gardist poetry now seems visionary, given the increasing use of hypertext as a way of connecting originally incongruent realities. The idea of writing “a poem the way nature makes a tree” sounds now familiar to computer programmers, for whom a tree is a structure in which data is classified so that every item can be traced to a single origin through a unique path. If English, Spanish and French have quite a lot in common, whereas many other aspects make them rather distinct, the differences between these languages and Chinese, Arabic, Russian and others are much greater. One question that can be asked when examining Huidobro’s self-translations is how poetic or artistic disjunctions could be used to connect worlds that sometimes seem very far away from each other.
Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian, Trandafiri (Roses) (2007) and Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria's Stories to Magus Viridis) (2012) and one in English and Romanian, Joining the Dots / Uniți punctele(2016). She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.